- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 15, 2009

Every presidency is like a 15-round heavyweight boxing match, and every one ends with a split decision. John F. Kennedy took America to Camelot but also to the Bay of Pigs. Lyndon B. Johnson ushered in civil rights but also the Vietnam War. Jimmy Carter excited a weary America after Watergate but ended up mired in malaise. Ronald Reagan broke down the Berlin Wall but traded arms for hostages in Iran. And Bill Clinton delivered a balanced budget but also endured a scandalous impeachment.

So, too, a split decision for President Bush.

He kept Americans safe after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, but he pre-emptively took America to war in Iraq to rid the threat of weapons of mass destruction - weapons that were never found.

He championed the battle against AIDS in Africa, delivered accountability to America’s schools, helped the elderly afford prescription medicine and called for the establishment of a Palestinian state - the first American president to do so.

But he failed in his attempts to overhaul Social Security and the immigration system, oversaw the largest rise in federal spending since the Great Society, expanded power in the executive branch, increased the use of wiretapping, refused to hold his top advisers culpable for the Abu Ghraib scandal, rejected a climate change pact against world opinion and left the nation mired in an economic swamp that historians say rivals the Great Depression.

Throughout his presidency, Mr. Bush refused to acknowledge a single mistake, once famously telling a reporter in April 2004: “I’m sure something will pop into my head here in the midst of this press conference, with all the pressure of trying to come up with an answer, but it hadn’t yet.”

His liberal foes have thrived throughout his two terms in office, noting hundreds - thousands - of perceived mistakes, keeping up a relentless drumbeat, often against the man, not the president. His critics lambasted every decision his military advisers and generals made as they conducted two wars. Even when the embattled Mr. Bush succeeded - as with the “surge” of 30,000 troops to Iraq, which stabilized the country - opponents charged that it was too little, too late.

In the end, two images likely will be among the most enduring of his presidency, and though he isn’t pictured in one of them, it was that single event that even some of his former top advisers say ended up sinking his presidency.

Dueling snapshots

Americans will forever remember Sept. 13, 2001, when a young president pulling a wizened and weary New York City firefighter onto a pile of rubble that was once the World Trade Center and shouted into a bullhorn: “I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!”

In those first few days after the attacks, Mr. Bush’s approval rating soared to 90 percent. Democrats and Republicans were suddenly alike: They were shocked, lost and frightened. They looked to their president for reassurance, and they found it in the steely resolve of a Texas rancher who vowed retribution but also pledged to keep the United States safe from terrorists.

But Americans also will remember the live video feeds from New Orleans in August 2005: Thousands of people, mostly black, stranded after Hurricane Katrina; thousands packed inside and outside the Superdome, clamoring for food, water, help; a nonstop daily stream of terrible images, the city under water, homes destroyed, billions of dollars of damage.

When the president - who flew over the city while returning from a fundraiser in California, prompting cries that he couldn’t care less about the Big Easy - finally did speak, he uttered eight words that would take their place in the lexicon of sarcastic praise: “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.” He was speaking to Michael D. Brown, director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, who resigned within days.

Mr. Bush’s approval rating plummeted to 39 percent; it would go lower, into the 20s, and end up as the lowest of any modern president. The political capital he claimed to have won in his 2004 re-election was spent, his bond with the American people broken, his bully pulpit lost forever.

Last month, just 18 percent of Americans said in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that they would miss Mr. Bush when he leaves office.

“Katrina was the tipping point, and it severed that bond with Americans,” said Matthew Dowd, who was Mr. Bush’s chief political strategist for the 2004 campaign and had worked for him since 1999. “Once that bond was severed, it’s very hard to get it back. This president never did - he never recovered.”

Derailed from the start

The 2000 election would be the closest in history and would not be decided for 36 days. Vice President Al Gore refused to concede, and election officials in Florida scoured ballots by hand, looking for hanging chads, swinging chads, and pregnant or dimpled chads.

On Dec. 12, 2000, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that the Florida Supreme Court’s method for recounting ballots was a violation of the U.S. Constitution. Texas Gov. George W. Bush was officially elected the 43rd president of the United States, only the second man to follow his father into the nation’s highest office.

While he would seek to move forward with an ambitious agenda, the well already was poisoned.

“I do think the Florida recount set kind of an ugly mood amongst some in the electorate,” Mr. Bush told C-SPAN’s Steve Scully last month. “In other words, the election was - in their minds - was in doubt. That made it harder to come as a - to unify the country after the election.”

On Jan. 20, 2001, Mr. Bush - his hair still brown, his face surprisingly unwrinkled for his 53 years - took office.

He planned a domestic presidency. He dealt with a burgeoning recession by cutting taxes across the board, even for the richest Americans. He asserted that that was only fair - all taxpayers would pay less.

He focused on other small-bore issues - embryonic stem cells, faith-based initiatives, the partisanship in Washington. “I think we’re making progress toward changing the tone in Washington,” he said in April 2001.

He delivered commencement addresses, welcomed collegiate volleyball champions to the White House, visited the Baseball Hall of Fame and established a monthly T-ball game at the White House.

In the early days, Mr. Bush reached across party lines to join a liberal icon, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, to pass the No Child Left Behind Act, which the president told The Washington Times in an exclusive interview last month was “a piece of civil rights legislation” intended to end “the soft bigotry of low expectations.”

But all that changed one sunny morning, as he read “My Pet Goat” to schoolchildren in Sarasota, Fla. Islamic terrorists directed by Osama bin Laden crashed two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Virginia, killing more than 3,000 people.

His chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., passed the news to the president in a classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School, whispering into his ear: “A second plane hit the second tower. America is under attack.”

For Mr. Bush, the day would change his presidency forever.

‘A loving guy’

Two days later, Sept. 13, reporters trotted into the Oval Office to hear the president’s phone conversation with New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York Gov. George E. Pataki. The brief event ended in a most remarkable way, one that would cut through the resolute public persona that Mr. Bush had held in place since the attacks and showed the flesh-and-blood man.

After the phone call, intended to reassure Americans, several reporters posed questions. Is it safe to fly? How close are you to finding who was responsible for the attacks?

Then a reporter asked: “About the prayer day tomorrow, Mr. President. Could you give us a sense as to what kind of prayers you are thinking and where your heart is for yourself?”

Mr. Bush turned away for a moment, and when he turned back, his eyes were brimming with tears.

“Well, I don’t think about myself right now. I think about the families, the children. I am a loving guy, and I am also someone, however, who has got a job to do - and I intend to do it.”

His chin trembled, his face contorted with emotion, as he blinked away tears. “And this is a terrible moment. But this country will not relent until we have saved ourselves and others from the terrible tragedy that came upon America.”

With that, the president left the Oval Office.

Confused staffers, his senior aides, looked at one another. He was not supposed to leave - the press leaves, not the president. They stood for a moment, then followed their leader through the door. The reporters and a TV crew were left, alone, in the office. They, too, trickled out.

A call to action

Hours before standing atop the rubble of the World Trade Center with a bullhorn, Mr. Bush - joined by his father, former presidents, lawmakers, leaders of every religion - called the nation together, leading a day of prayer in “the middle hour of our grief.”

“So many have suffered so great a loss, and today we express our nation’s sorrow. We come before God to pray for the missing and the dead, and for those who love them,” the president said in a “National Day of Prayer and Remembrance” at the National Cathedral in Washington.

In a powerful but brief speech, he consoled the families of the fallen, much as he would do later throughout the Iraq war. But the born-again Christian also set out a course for America, which he said would not turn the other cheek.

“Just three days removed from these events, Americans do not yet have the distance of history. But our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil. War has been waged against us by stealth and deceit and murder. This nation is peaceful, but fierce when stirred to anger. This conflict was begun on the timing and terms of others. It will end in a way, and at an hour, of our choosing.”

‘An axis of evil’

In his State of the Union address on Jan. 29, 2002, Mr. Bush took aim at three nations he deemed dangers to global security.

“North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, while starving its citizens. Iran aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom. Iraq continues to flaunt its hostility toward America and to support terror,” he told a joint session of Congress.

“States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic.”

In June, Mr. Bush set out the tenets of the Bush Doctrine in a speech at West Point. “We cannot defend America and our friends by hoping for the best. We cannot put our faith in the word of tyrants, who solemnly sign nonproliferation treaties, and then systemically break them. If we wait for threats to fully materialize, we will have waited too long. Our security will require transforming the military you will lead, a military that must be ready to strike at a moment’s notice in any dark corner of the world. And our security will require all Americans to be forward-looking and resolute, to be ready for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty and to defend our lives.”

Early 2003 saw a concerted effort by administration officials, notably Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, to press the case that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved military action, and America, too, would go along - at first.

But Mr. Cheney’s prediction in March 2003, that American soldiers would be “greeted as liberators,” was far from true. The war would drag on, long past a speech by Mr. Bush on the deck of the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, when he stood in front of a huge “Mission Accomplished” banner and declared that “major combat operations in Iraq have ended.”

And soon, questions would arise about the veracity of claims from the White House that Iraq held weapons of mass destruction.

“There wasn’t enough questioning on the intelligence that was contrary before the Iraq war,” said former White House press secretary Scott McClellan. “Contradictory evidence was ignored in the process and things were lumped together to make the threat sound more grave and more serious and more urgent than it really was. … In the end, the case was overstated, oversold.”

Things were about to get worse.

‘A tough stretch’

“I earned capital in the campaign, political capital, and now I intend to spend it. It is my style,” Mr. Bush said firmly just days after he was re-elected in 2004, winning the first majority of votes since his father in 1988.

But his 50.7 percent total was by no means a mandate, and the president would soon make several mistakes - one fatal.

First, Mr. Bush sought to overhaul Social Security, often called the “third rail of politics.” Democrats opposed his plan to allow Americans to create personal savings accounts and seniors, including the powerful AARP lobby, expressed doubts. His proposal would be dead by year’s end.

Then Katrina made a direct hit on New Orleans, portions of which lie below sea level.

“You can’t underestimate how devastating it was,” Mr. McClellan said. “It left an indelible stain on his presidency.”

He said Americans had given Mr. Bush the benefit of the doubt on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but “when Katrina hit, it moved from ‘Not only are they not being truthful with us’ to ‘Now they’re not even competent. They can’t even get it right here at home, no wonder they can’t get it right over in Iraq.’”

Then another misstep: In a surprisingly tone-deaf move, Mr. Bush in October nominated White House counsel Harriet E. Miers to replace Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court.

While Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid recommended Miss Miers as Justice O’Connor’s successor, conservatives harpooned her. After two powerful Republican senators asked Mr. Bush to withdraw the nomination, Miss Miers stepped aside.

Within months, the “ports controversy” exploded, as the administration acknowledged a deal in the works to transfer control of port management businesses in six major U.S. seaports to a company based in the United Arab Emirates. Conservatives lashed the president again, and he was furious at his advisers for misplaying the deal.

A panel in the House, controlled by Republicans, voted 62-2 to kill the deal.

“Yeah, that was a tough stretch,” said longtime presidential adviser Dan Bartlett.

Regrets

Mr. Bush, holding his final White House news conference Monday, delivered a long list of mistakes he made during his two terms in office, ticking off everything from the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to the his decisions after Katrina struck New Orleans.

“Clearly putting a ‘Mission Accomplished’ banner on an aircraft carrier was a mistake,” the president said. “It sent the wrong message; we were trying to say something differently, but nevertheless it conveyed a different message.

“Obviously, some of my rhetoric has been a mistake,” Mr. Bush said.

In recent days of reflective interview before he leaves office Jan. 20, the president has criticized his own choice of words, such as the time he demanded bin Laden “dead or alive” or taunted al Qaeda by saying, “Bring it on.”

On Katrina, Mr. Bush defended his decision to fly over a devastated New Orleans the day after the levees broke, as he returned from California.

“I’ve thought long and hard about Katrina, you know, could I have done something differently, like, land Air Force One, either in New Orleans or Baton Rouge. The problem with that is that law enforcement would have been pulled away from the mission and then your questions would have been, ‘How could you possibly have flown Air Force One into Baton Rouge and police officers that were needed to expedite traffic out of New Orleans were taken off the task to look after you?’”

Mr. Bush also regretted the first policy initiative he pushed after winning re-election in 2004, when he declared “I have capital, and I’m going to spend it.”

“I believe that running the Social Security idea right after the ‘04 election was a mistake. I should have argued for immigration reform. … The crisis was not imminent as far as members of Congress were concerned.”

But the president defended his decisions - and those of all past and future presidents.

“One thing about the presidency is that you can only make decisions based on the information at hand. You don’t get to have information after you make the decision - that’s not the way it works. And you stand by your decisions, and you explain why you made the decisions you made.”

Legacy

The president ends as he began: in a recession, the country split by partisan politics, the Middle East in turmoil. Mr. Bush has repeatedly said that historians are still deciding the legacy of the first president, so he won’t lose much sleep trying to figure out his - historians will sort all that out, and likely get it right.

Even his former aides are split over how history will perceive him.

“No leader has ever been appreciated in their time,” said Brad Blakeman, a top aide from 2000 to 2005. “It’s only after time that you can make a full and fair assessment of achievement and failure. The jury’s going to be out for a while on Iraq, although it appears that things are headed in the right direction for a sustainable and peaceful Iraq and if that comes to pass will deliver dividends for a very long time having an ally in a very troubled region.”

Another former senior adviser, Karen Hughes, echoed the sentiment.

“It was a time of enormous consequence and great challenge,” she said shortly after she arrived in Washington this week to fly back to Texas aboard the president’s plane - it will no longer be Air Force One when he departs on Tuesday.

“Many of those challenges had been brewing for years. And what defines this presidency is that the president boldly dealt with all of them. … When you think about the range of his accomplishments, I think history’s judgment is going to be very positive.”

Critics, though, say Mr. Bush should have leveled more with the American people.

“The first step to shaping the legacy for the better is to candidly address his own mistakes and shortcomings and accept responsibility for those,” said Mr. McClellan. “And until he does that, it’s hard to get people to focus on other initiatives that I think are very notable.”

Mr. Dowd, now an outspoken Bush critic, followed suit.

“The American public doesn’t want Dr. Phil as president, but they do want somebody that can say, ‘This didn’t turn out, I’m going to change, I made a mistake, and here’s what I’m going to do.’ The public expects people not to have all the answers and to learn in office. I think the president and others around him think the admission of a mistake is a sign of weakness, but the public sees it the opposite way,” Mr. Dowd said.

But Mr. Bartlett, who once shaped the daily White House message, said that a sense of nostalgia and a change of heart about Mr. Bush may come sooner than many historians - or even the president - have thought.

“After this new president starts making some difficult decisions, people will think differently. There’s no corner in the Oval Office to hide in. At some point, hard decisions will have to be made. Maybe in a year or so, people will say, ‘Well, maybe ol’ George W. wasn’t as bad as we thought,’” Mr. Bartlett said with a laugh.

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